Great Mother

In Container, the third article in my series on leaving home, I wrote briefly about what can happen when a child’s need for balanced “containment” and nurturance are not met in the family of origin, and she grows up uncontained, unprotected, and without nurture. The opposite can happen, of course, and a child can grow up over-protected by an over-involved mother or father, as in the case of some religiously home schooled children, for example. And it is to the concept of opposites and ends of the bell curve that we must now turn, for when we write in Jungian terms about mothers, we are writing not only one’s own actual mother, but about the archetype of mother, one Jung referred to as the Great Mother.

eucharist10 by you.Jung believed that the influence of the mother on a child derived not only from the actual mother, but also from the Great Mother archetype, a universal image or symbol, along with influences from the child’s own psyche. The child’s idea of “mother” may or may not correspond accurately to the actual mother, then, depending on the child’s own temperament and personality combined with universally-held archetypes and the influence of the actual mother.

The Great Mother is an archetype of opposites, including at one end the sympathetic, caring, solicitous mother and at the other the devouring, seductive, poisonous mother. The first may be represented by the Virgin Mary, for example, while the latter might be represented by Kali, the mother who devours her young. Even though the child may understand that his personal mother is neither a Madonna nor a Kali, he may relate to her as if she were such a figure. Likewise, the undeveloped mother with a mother complex may constellate or manifest her own Good Mother (or Bad Mother), fail to integrate the two within herself, and give her child a mother-child experience that, for all practical purposes, is experienced very much as if the child had actually grown up with an archetype rather than a real mother.

Why might this occur? Most probably it occurs because the mother never came to terms with her personal mother’s dual natures and thus failed to successfully handle the Good Mother-Bad Mother split. To put it in the simplest terms, the child with a projected Good Mother may internalize Bad Mother and give only Bad Mother to her own child, or vice-versa. This legacy of a one-dimensional, split mother image may thus come to be handed down from generation to generation, with the parent carrying one image and the child carrying its opposite until someone awakens and integrates the two.

This rudimentary level of consciousness is referred to as participation mystique, a term coined by French anthropologist Lévy-Bruhl. The child identifies with the parent, and the parent with the child, experiencing no awareness that they are unconsciously identified with one another. This same type of identification may occur not only with parents or other people, but with objects or the career or any number of things. However, the earliest participation mystique occurs in the family of origin, and connects parents and children through the process of identification, introjection, and projection.

eucharist7 by you.

Identification is the unconscious projection of one’s personality onto that of another, causing the individual to behave as if two different and dissimilar entities are in fact identical. Through identification, the infant believes that he is the same as his mother. Introjection is an attempt to internalize experience or to take another’s personality, situation, or essence inside oneself. One possible positive use of introjection is empathy, or the ability to perceive or feel another’s experience as if it were one’s own. Projection, on the other hand, is the expulsion of an individual’s unconscious, inner content onto another person (or object). Projected contents are regarded as part of the other person, having been disowned by the one doing the projecting.

eucharist9 by you.In analytical psychology, projection is seen as the way in which elements of a person’s unconscious world are made manifest to him consciously. The projection of one’s unconscious contents onto the external world is regarded as a valuable service to the internal world of the individual if and when a re-collection or re-integration of the projected contents takes place. This may occur through analysis, with the help of conscious and aware mentors or loved ones, when the target or carrier of another’s projected contents steadfastly refuses to cooperate, or (less often) when the individual him- or herself recalls the projections.
According to Jung, he process of recalling one’s projections occurs thus:

  1. The person is convinced that what he sees in the other is the case.
  2. A gradual recognition dawns of a differentiation between the other as she or he really is and the projected image. This awareness may be facilitated by dreams or events or other means.
  3. Some sort of assessment or judgment is made of the discrepancy.
  4. A conclusion is reached that what was felt was erroneous or illusory.
  5. A conscious search for the sources and origin of the projection is undertaken. This includes collective as well as personal determinants of the projection.

Jung believed that analysis could only help the individual through the fourth step. All other real progress toward integration of the self could only occur within the individual, based on work undertaken on his own.

In contrast to Melanie Klein’s idea that projective identification leads to the elimination of separations, Jung believed that projection divided and separated people. I side with Jung on this one, believing that the splitting of the self through rejection and expulsion of inner contents onto another cannot possibly lead to unity between people, much less to unity within the person doing the projecting. I do, however, understand Klein’s point: the unconscious intent of projection is to achieve the appearance or feeling of unity within the person doing the projecting. I simply believe that this ploy cannot possibly work in the long term because the appearance of unity and real unity are two different things. Ongoing projection must inevitably lead to the decline, decay, and eventual dismissal of whole parts of the personality.

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